Jeannette rolled the gritty pebble around in her mouth. It tasted horrible, but its presence tricked her saliva glands into thinking it was food. Her mouth watered and she swallowed thickly, grateful for the moisture to wet her parched throat. They hadn't brought her water in hours – maybe a day. She hadn't had real food in much longer.
She tried to dig down into herself, to find the kernel of pain that fueled the magic of the banshee. There was nothing, only the spreading lassitude that enveloped her limbs, creeping into her soul. The frigid air in the cell numbed her body: now she was becoming numb inside as well.
Jeannette had already died once. She didn't want to do it again. But they were keeping her so weak, she wasn't sure she had a choice.
Could a banshee even die? Maybe she was going to find out.
She spat the pebble out.
It was taking everything she had to survive, now. Weeks without proper food had mined her resources to the brink. She'd watched her former cellmate die, watched the body start to freeze, then she'd ripped at the corpse with jagged fingernails and swallowed the semi-frozen flesh raw.
They'd taken the body away a day or two ago, before she'd had time to really regain any of her lost strength.
She thought they were a little in awe of her now.
She curled up in a ball, trying to preserve the little body heat she still had, and rested her head on her knees. If they were frightened of her, that might make them sloppy, might create an opportunity she could take advantage of. Even weak, if she could only get out of this cell... she'd be free.
Some time later, the door creaked open slightly.
Jeannette barely moved, but her whole body tensed, ready to pounce. She lifted her head slowly, trying to pick words out of the torrent of Russian from outside. Witch, she heard – that was what they called her – and trouble, she knew that one, and die. She snarled, wondering if she'd have to fight her way out after all.
The door swung open all the way. Three of her four guards had guns trained on her – too many for her to rush, weak as she was. The other held an unconscious woman, covered in blood and bruises, in his arms. Keeping a wary eye on Jeannette, he dumped the woman on the stone floor, kicking a bucket of half-frozen water in after her. He stepped back without turning his back on them and swung the door shut with a clang.
Still without moving, Jeannette looked down at the woman on the cell floor. She had clearly been beaten badly. One arm looked broken, and blood still dripped from the corner of her mouth.
Suddenly, the Russian Jeanette had been trying to translate came together in her head. Throw her in with the other witch. They can die together, save us the trouble.
Jeannette pulled the bucket of slush toward her and fished out a lump of ice. Letting it melt slowly in her mouth, she watched the unconscious woman and wondered.
When the woman woke, she woke with a vengeance. One moment she was unconscious; then her eyes snapped open and she struggled to her feet. Ignoring Jeannette, she went straight to the door, pounding with her uninjured hand and shouting foreign curses. She cycled through several languages Jeannette didn't recognize before settling into English.
"Dammit you fucking bastards come back and fucking try that again-"
"That's no use," Jeannette said in the same language.
The woman spun, clutching her broken arm close to her side. "And who the hell are you?" she challenged.
"I could ask you the same thing, darling," Jeannette said. Regal even in her rags, she unfolded herself from the floor and rose.
The woman took up a defensive stance. "Don't come near me," she warned. "I don't want to hurt you."
Jeannette laughed and stepped forward. The woman shifted her weight, preparing to strike, and her leg gave way beneath her. She crumbled to the ground, grunting as she tried to break her fall with her injured arm. She looked up at Jeannette, defiant.
"Listen," Jeannette said. "There's no use us threatening each other. Now, we are both prisoners. Together, maybe we can change that."
The woman studied Jeannette closely for a long moment before jerking her head in a grudging nod. Jeannette crouched next to her; she stiffened, but didn't pull away this time.
"Let me see your arm," Jeannette said.
"No." The woman didn't move.
Jeannette rolled her eyes. "To escape, we need to help each other. To trust each other. You need to heal."
The woman glanced dismissively at her arm. "I've had worse, and I heal fast." She paused. "Both thanks to my father."
"You may heal fast, but you will heal wrong if we don't set the bone." Jeannette laid light fingers on the woman's leg. "I have no medical training, but I have seen many injuries in my life. Do you want to be weakened permanently?"
The woman sighed. "You're not going to let up, are you?" Jeannette waited patiently. "Fine." She lifted her arm.
Jeannette took hold of the stranger's wrist with one hand and braced her elbow with the other. She pulled slowly but firmly, feeling the bones grate along each other. The woman made no sound, only gritted her teeth, but sweat beaded along her forehead and she turned away.
"If you are going to be ill, there is a hole in the corner," Jeannette said, not looking away from her work.
"I'm fine," the woman said shortly.
The bones slid back into place and Jeannette looked up. "Don't move; that needs to be wrapped. Do you have anything?"
The woman arched an eyebrow. "Yes, they let me keep all my first aid supplies when they jailed me," she snapped.
Jeannette shook her head. "Manners," she muttered, sitting back on her heels and picking at the seam of her tattered dress. "No one has proper manners any more." She unwound a long strip from the remnants of what had once been a very nice gown, long ago, and tied it around the break, steadying it.
"I hope you do heal fast," she said, dipping another scrap into the bucket of water, "because that won't last very long." She leaned in to wipe away the blood covering the woman's face. The woman jerked back, startled. "Fine, my dear," Jeannette said, affronted. "Take care of yourself. I'll leave you to it." She dropped the fabric on the floor and stepped away.
The woman picked up the damp cloth and pressed it to her face, wincing when it came away streaked with blood. "Sorry," she muttered after a moment.
"Make no mistake," Jeannette said, leaning against the far wall. "You are my way out of here. I can smell the death on you, but I do not care who you are, why you're here, who hurt you. To escape, I need you whole. I do not act out of compassion or mercy, but I also will not injure you. Understand that, and perhaps we can move on."
"Yeah? Sounds great to me." The woman flexed the fingers of her injured arm, wincing. "And... thanks. I – thanks."
They slept curled together, for warmth, and the comfort of another human body.
The first night, Jeannette woke to yelling and realized her cellmate was having a nightmare. She reached out, intending to shake her awake. She barely touched the other woman before she was knocked back across the cell. When she sat up, the woman was braced against the wall, still half-asleep, scrabbling for absent weapons. Jeannette slapped her – not hard, but hard enough to stun.
The women blinked awake and glanced around the cell. "Oh. I'm safe," she said, laid down, and fell back asleep.
In the morning, Jeannette asked. "My father used to like to test my combat training in the middle of the night," the woman answered, and changed the subject to the layout of the camp and the best route to avoid the guards' barracks.
They shared their knowledge, compared what they knew of their prison, hoarded what little food they got. And they planned.
Several nights later, the woman rolled over in her sleep and draped her arm across Jeannette's neck.
Jeannette gasped, struggling to breathe, the headsman's axe filling her vision, pressing down into the flesh at her neck slowly, while she wept and he laughed and the crowd jeered...
"Hey. Hey! Wake up, you crazy – wake up!"
Jeannette blinked. The scene at the gallows dissolved around her and her cellmate's face swam into view.
Jeannette came slowly back to herself. She drew a hand down her throat, stopping at the rough, ugly scar that marred her perfect white skin. She dug her fingernails into it, tore at it, full of hatred.
Stop it!" The woman grabbed Jeannette's hands and pulled them away. "What the fu – what's wrong?"
"My husband. He cut off my head," Jeannette whispered, and began to sob. "He betrayed me. He cut off my head." She hid her face and keened, and the other woman drew her close awkwardly.
"It's okay," she whispered to Jeannette. "We'll get you out of here. Then you can get back at him and cut off whatever bits of his you want. Shh." She continued whispering, but in another language, and the unfamiliar rhythm lured Jeannette back into a dreamless sleep.
The woman didn't ask in the morning, just tilted Jeannette's chin up and dabbed at the crusting wounds Jeannette had gouged in her own flesh. When she finished, she wiped away the tear tracks under Jeannette's eyes, her touch smooth and almost impersonal.
"That husband of yours," she asked, turning away as if to give Jeannette the illusion of privacy, "did he give you that scar? I hope you're not... going back to him?"
Jeannette laughed sharply. The sound was ugly even to her own ears. "No, dear," she said, her tone dripping with satisfaction. "He died decades ago. I saw to that." She saw the woman's head turn and half-smiled. "I told you he had me beheaded. Did you think I was joking?
"He sold me to the executioner for a sin that was his. To pay for his vanity, I suffered through a dull axe wielded by a laughing jester. The axe strokes fell, here." She drew a line across her collarbone. "Here." She stroked the curve of her jaw. "And here." Her fingers hovered over the scar, but did not touch.
"When he finally corrected his aim, stopped playing to the crowd and settled to his job, my fear was gone. All I had left was my pain. My anger at his ineptitude. My sorrow at being used. And my horror at the touch of my own blood running in rivers across my back. It was enough to summon the banshee."
Jeannette reached out cold fingers and cupped the other woman's cheek. "You are sweet to think of my revenge for me, darling. He did not die in pieces. Even my song was a gentler death than he deserved. But he is dead, and decayed, his bones gone to dust, and I am still here."
They stared at each other, frozen in tableau for a moment, then the woman reached up and drew Jeannette's hand down between her own. "Okay," she said finally. "What can you do, how can I help you do it, and how will it help us escape?"
"A little more time, a little more food," Jeannette said, "and I can stand against anything this camp has to offer."
"Save some for me," the woman said, her smile as cold as Jeannette's. "They won't know what hit them."
"Oh yes. They will," Jeannette corrected her.
One morning, Jeannette opened her eyes and knew. "Today," she said, sitting upright.
Next to her, the woman came fully awake. "How can you tell?" she asked, her hands flexing into fists.
"Parce-que le mort nous s'approche," Jeannette mused. "Death is coming for us. I can hear it." She closed her eyes. "So much death. I hope none of it will be ours."
"Right. Well. Let's show them what we've got."
They scrambled to their feet together and stood facing each other, almost awkward.
"The battle is coming. I am glad not to face it alone," Jeannette said, clasping the woman's hands.
"This will be a fight to remember," the woman said, and hesitated. "If we get... separated... my name is Scandal. I want you to... have known it."
Jeannette smiled. "It's an honour, my friend. Your name will not be forgotten. And I am Jeannette." Leaning forward, she swiftly kissed Scandal on both cheeks, enjoying the flush that spread across her face.
The floor reverberated beneath their feet, the tramp of dozens of pairs of boots shaking it from outside their cell. They spun from each other to face the door, feet planted in readiness. Jeannette reached inside herself again and found a core of roiling emotion.
"Cover your ears when the door opens, my dear," she said, and knew the smile on Scandal's face mirrored that on her own.
The door creaked, and Jeannette drew in a breath.
"Jeannette. Jeannette! Come back, Jeannette. They're dead, sweetheart. It's done. You can come back now. Jeannette, it's Scandal. We're free. Jeannette."
Jeannette blinked, found herself on her feet in the middle of a war zone, and promptly collapsed. Scandal dropped down with her, supporting her, and cradled her head on her lap.
"Thank God," Scandal said. "That was... I thought... the banshee had taken you." She was covered in blood, and very pale. "Are you back? Are you... are you sure it's gone?" Jeannette reached up to her, smearing more blood across her cheek. Jeannette frowned. Blood on her hands? How had that happened?
"I am the banshee," she muttered. "It's inside me. You pushed it back. You're bleeding. Are you all right? What happened?"
Scandal wiped blood out of her eyes impatiently. "Most of this isn't mine. We took the camp, Jeannette, that's what happened. We're free."
Jeannette sat up. The world spun, but Scandal's hand on her back steadied her. "Oh," she said softly, looking at the extent of the destruction surrounding her. Buildings were falling down, bodies were scattered, the snow was churned up in a soup of mud and blood. And in the corner of the yard stood a gallows, two nooses swinging empty. The scent of death surrounded her, clinging to her skin and Scandal's, but she couldn't hear any souls still waiting to cross over. They had survived.
"Well," she said, clambering to her feet, "we do make a good team, don't we?" She plucked at her blood-sodden gown impatiently. "We need to see what we can salvage. Especially clothes. I'm not wearing this for a moment longer than I absolutely have to."
Scandal was still sitting on the ground, looking up at her.
"Well?" Jeannette said. "I don't plan to stay here any longer. I want some clothes, and I want a bath." She shivered. "And then I want to go somewhere very hot, very humid, and very sunny." She reached out her hands to draw Scandal upright. "Does that sound acceptable?"
Scandal squeezed Jeannette's hands. "This seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship," she said.
They stood in the middle of devastation and smiled.